Evdokimovian theory of beauty

Paul Evdokimov was an Orthodox theologian who develops a theology of beauty in his book The Art of the Icon. What follows is a theology of sacred beauty that uses motifs from his work.

1.) Beauty is essentially a call to ecstasy. The experience of beauty is of being called forth toward something promised as opposed to exhaustively comprehending something within us (like when we see from one end of a truth to another) nor is it the actual possession of something outside of us, as happens with the good. Beauty is incomplete in the sense of promising more, and it is ecstatic because it does not offer this “more” as something to be possessed by intelligence or will.

2.) There are diverse sorts of ecstasy and therefore diverse sorts of beauty. Bacchic ecstasy is the lowest form, and so the lowest form of beauty. Endokimov never considers this sort. Apollonian ecstasy arises from our marvelling at perfect technique, exact realism, and other ways of creating the beautiful though mastery of the manipulation of artistic elements. This sort of beauty enters into the fine arts in the late Medieval period through Giotto and the invention of perspective, trompe-l’œil, and other sorts of visual realism.

3.) Sacred ecstasy differs from both the Apollonian and Bacchic mode. From an Apollonian point of view, the icon is a primitive sketch or quasi-abstraction. It needs development into greater historicity and faithfulness to the world. From a Bacchic point of view, the sacred lacks dynamic energy and the power to form social communion.

4.) Apollonian and Bacchic ecstasy both seek to displace the sacred. The Bacchic does so by seeking to inject sexual themes or themes in which the crowd can lose itself in collective activity. This happens principally by music but can also happen through architecture that emphasizes open spaces centered around an elevated, central performance altar. The Apollonian seeks to give sacred art greater realism, and it does so by giving architecture greater precision or music greater technique.

5.) There is a contradiction at the heart of Apollonian beauty. It wants to both be an ideal and real: Christ on the cross both looks like a real person and yet has a flawless, unblemished body, a clean-cropped beard etc. Because of this, the Apollonian shifts to seeking for sur-reality in an attempt to get at the “true ideal” that is behind the mere appearance. All displays of technique quickly become insipid and lead to primitivism as a backlash, whether it is the virtuoso pianists of the 19th century or the electric guitarists of the late 1980’s.

6.) While Bacchic or Apollonian ecstasy have their place, they become demonic when they try to displace the sacred. In this sense, beauty is alienable from truth and goodness so far as one kind of ecstasy can set itself up as the truth of another.




  1. Jake said,

    October 13, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    Typo? Evdokimov?

  2. October 14, 2016 at 6:02 am

    His name was different. And he hasn’t been a priest, but a layman.

    • October 14, 2016 at 6:31 am

      You’re right. I was reading his bio in the book when I wrote that and I honestly don’t know what I saw. I fixed it.

  3. October 14, 2016 at 6:17 am

    (This turned into a bit of a speculation’s Radio Yerevan.)

  4. Jack said,

    October 14, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    First, does sacred beauty have a positive definition?
    Second, natural beauty, like mountains or oceans, doesn’t fit into either Bacchic or Apollonian. Would it be labled sacred beauty because it is made by God, or would is it left un accounted for?

    • October 15, 2016 at 11:38 am

      This argument only works as an account of artistic beauty – I’m not sure how to scale it up to an account of beauty in nature, though parts would still remain (like the ecstasy and promise elements).

      Sacred beauty is here only understood negatively in opposition to the Bacchic and Apollonian. It doesn’t seem to go through movements in the way the Apollonian arts do. It doesn’t need to be cutting edge or avant-garde. It is a beauty of quiet in clear opposition to Bacchic frenzy. It stresses the symbolic and the archetypal, especially in vibrancy of color. It also has a unique phenomenology of darkness. Bacchic darkness tends to hide the crowd, Sacred darkness tends to hide the thing the crowd observes (say, by veils).

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